A Century of Dishonor

"Penn's Treaty with the Indians," oil on canvas by Edward Hicks (c. 1830-40). (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“Penn’s Treaty with the Indians,” oil on canvas by Edward Hicks (c. 1830-40). (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1881) should be considered one of the most important American books of the 19th century.[1] Jackson, author of the popular novel Ramona (1883), considered her chronicle of broken treatises between the United States and Native American nations as “only a sketch, and not a history.” Her object, stated in the opening pages of her book, was “simply to show our causes for national shame in the matter of our treatment of the Indians.” (7)

Jackson dedicates numerous chapters to detailing injustices committed against the Delawares, Cheyennes, Nez Perces, Sioux, Poncas, Winnebagos, Cherokees and Apaches among other tribes. One witness account collected by her of an exchange in 1852 between Alexander Ramsey, Territorial Governor of Minnesota, and Red Iron, Chief of the Sisseton Sioux, at a gathering “crowded with Indians and white men,” is a typical example of Indian councils:

GOV.: You owe more than your money will pay, and I am ready now to pay your annuity, and no more.

RED IRON: The snow is on the ground, and we have been waiting a long time to get our money…. We may die because you won’t pay us…, but if we do we will leave our bones on the ground, that our Great Father may see where his Dakota children died…. We have sold our hunting-grounds and the graves of our fathers. We have sold our own graves. We have no place to bury our dead, and you will not pay us the money for our lands. (391)

For Jackson, this history of injustices committed against North American Indians was dishonorable and unacceptable:

If there be one thing which [the American people] believe in more than any other, and mean that every man on this continent shall have, it is “fair play.” And as soon as they fairly understand how cruelly it has been denied to the Indian, they will rise up and demand it for him. (7)

Helen Hunt Jackson. (Credit:  Online Archive of California)

Helen Hunt Jackson. (Credit: Online Archive of California)

Four things she found necessary (“must cease to be done”) in order to wipe out “the disgrace to us” of the condition of Indian nations: 1) cheating; 2) robbing; 3) breaking promises; and “the refusal of the protection of the law to the Indian’s rights of property.” When these four things “have ceased to be done,” then “time, statesmanship, philanthropy and Christianity” could accomplish the rest. (342)

Suppose that a man has had the misfortune to be born into a family whose name has been blackened by generations of criminals; that his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before them had lived in prisons, and died on scaffolds, should that man say in his soul, “Go to! What is the use? I also will commit robbery and murder, and get the same gain by it which my family must have done?” Or shall he say in his soul, “God help me! I will do what may be within the power of one man, and the compass of one generation, to atone for the wickedness, and to make clean the name of my dishonored house!”

Jackson encouraged the Congress of 1880 to “cover itself with a lustre of glory” by cutting short the nation’s “record of cruelties and perjuries.”

Like the character of Saint Joan in Bernard Shaw’s play, we could rightfully exclaim today: How long, O Lord, how long? How long must we wait, in Jackson’s words, “to redeem the name of the United States from the stain of a century of dishonor!” (30-31)

OG

[1] Helen Jackson, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government Dealings with some of the Indian Tribes (1881; New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1994), 7.

Band of Apache Indian prisoners at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Tex. (Geronimo is third from the right, in front), 1886.  (Rolling Thunder / Wikimedia Commons)

Band of Apache Indian prisoners at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Tex. (Geronimo is third from the right, in front), 1886. (Rolling Thunder / Wikimedia Commons)

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